The problem, they say, is that the Revs. Rudolph McKissick Sr. and Jr. will not allow them and other congregation members to see how a $22 million loan has been used. Their suit to gain access to those records has been winding its way through Duval County Circuit Court for more than a year.
"We just want to see where the money went," one of the plaintiffs, William McCormick, said after a court hearing last month.
Whatever the suit's outcome, the Bethel case is a reminder of how lack of transparency - real or perceived - in church finance can generate everything from headaches to disgruntled parishioners to legal challenges.
But no matter who wins this or any other finance-related legal challenge or criminal case, experts say the fallout will land far beyond the sanctuary walls.
"Search the Internet and you'll find all too many stories of misuse of funds in churches, and when that happens everyone in the Christian world gets a black eye," said Dan Busby, president of Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a Virginia-based ministry that seeks to bring church finances into the light of day.
The McCormicks and other Bethel leaders declined comment for this story, but, as Busby said, the Web is crawling with nightmarish church-money stories:
- In 1989, Jim Bakker was imprisoned after embezzling more than $150 million from his PTL cable network.
- Ellen F. Cooke, former treasurer of the Episcopal Church, admitted in 2006 to embezzling $1.5 million from the denomination.
- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons was ousted as president of the National Baptist Convention in 1999 and spent time behind bars for stealing $4 million from the denomination to help support a mistress and buy luxury homes and jewelry.
- Earlier this year, two Florida priests were sent to prison for stealing hundreds of thousands from a Catholic parish in Delray Beach.
Busby and other experts, including ministers on the First Coast, say prevention is the best medicine and ranges from having church members with bookkeeping know-how examine spending, to having outside CPAs audit all financial records.
Most church financial woes result from honest mistakes in an environment where the laity is often all too trusting of religious leaders who are, in turn, usually untrained and uninterested in administration, said Chuck Zech, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University.
"No man ever became a priest because he wanted to run a small business, which is what a parish is," Zech said.
Whether run by high-ranking officials or by lay people, most congregations try to head problems off at the pass, local ministers said.
At First Baptist Church in Orange Park, annual budgets are drafted by a finance committee, distributed to all members and then voted on by the congregation during a Sunday morning worship service, Pastor David Tarkington said.
Throughout the year, the pastor and other ministers spend the money in their budgets while the finance committee meets monthly to oversee revenues and expenditures.
Every three months, a church-wide business meeting is held where any church member can ask questions or raise concerns. He said that process is similar in most Southern Baptist churches.
"We do it that way to avoid any appearance of impropriety," Tarkington said.
Revenue and spending at Catholic parishes are monitored monthly by dioceses and every four years by outside auditors, said Catherine Macina, chief financial officer of the Jacksonville-based Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine.
The diocese's spending and revenues are examined once a year by an outside auditing firm and every five years by the Vatican, Macina said.
Financial accountability and transparency is an obligation congregations and dioceses owe their parishioners, Macina said.
"We are responsible to the people to show we are being good stewards of their money," she said.
A business approach
Congregations where temptations and conflicts of interest are minimized usually are in less danger of running into fiscal disasters, Zech said.
A prime model are Jewish and Muslim houses of worship, which he said are usually run like businesses with boards of directors that have ultimate control of the purse strings.
In those situations, clergy can make suggestions on budget priorities, but not set them, said Rabbi Martin Sandberg, spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Congregation in Mandarin.
Synagogues also are dues-based instead of relying on tithes, Sandberg said, making it a little easier to predict annual income and expenditures.
Transparency and accountability are achieved through the annual election of the board, whose regular meetings are open to membership, Sandberg said.
"They can ask questions about any issue they feel like, including finances," he said.
'The kingdom suffers'
While the vast majority of church money abuses result from incompetence and lack of diligence, the results are usually devastating on every level imaginable, Busby said.
Most often the damage is immediate and long lasting: Tithing plummets, members quit and a church's reputation is tarnished. These outcomes are exacerbated if lawsuits or criminal charges result, Busby said.
But the greater tragedy, Busby said, is that an entire religious tradition can be tarnished by a scandal. Many quit the faith altogether, while the issue provides ammunition to critics of organized religion.
Another result is that embezzled, misspent or misplaced money, by definition, isn't accomplishing whatever ministerial goal or project for which it was meant. So the poor suffer and missions go without much-needed dollars, Busby said.
"The kingdom of God suffers when we don't practice proper oversight of God's funds."
Source: Florida Times Union | Jeff Brumley - email@example.com, (904) 359-4310
Hierarchical vs. Congregational
Church financial guru Chuck Zech offers this rule of thumb for oversight of church finances: The more hierarchical the church, the more likely it is to have built-in fiscal oversight. That's because a church run from the top down is more likely to use shared financial management software, have the funds to pay for outside audits and hire its own accountants. One reason some of these denominations have had major financial scandals is that they are more likely to catch embezzlers, Zech said.
Next are traditions known as "congregational," in which decisions are made by members of the church. They may or may not have financial controls in place, but their leaders have opportunities for shared training in financial and other administrative matters. Then there are non-denominational churches, which usually have the least amount of financial oversight and accountability, Zech said. "A lot of these are mom-and-pop shops where the pastor is a very charismatic figure and the parishioners are reluctant to put a lot of oversight" on their spending authority.
Hierarchical groups include: - Catholic - Episcopal - Methodist - Lutheran - Presbyterian Congregational groups include: - Assemblies of God - Baptists - Churches of Christ - United Church of Christ
Tips for congregations on improving fiscal accountability: - Use financial management software designed for businesses. - Appoint a committee to oversee all revenue and expenditures. - Hire an outside accountant to conduct an annual audit, and make the results public - at least to members. Smaller churches could have members with bookkeeping expertise conduct internal audits. - Hold regular meetings where members can be updated on financial matters and ask questions. - Establish policies governing how gifts are used and how donors will be notified of their use.
Sources: Charles Zech, Dan Busby
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